Booze and books have a symbiotic relationship: they both look great displayed on wooden shelves, they both are intended to be consumed, and, for better or for worse, writers tend to gravitate toward particular bars and clubs over time.
The following are ten of the best bars in New York City renowned for their literary past and present, which range from a dive bar to a bohemian writers’ den to a place where only the most famous authors can afford to spend more than a few drinks.
1. Pete’s Tavern (Flatiron)
The ominous and atmospheric bar has all the hallmarks of a classic New York spot – pressed tin, wood carvings, and a literary atmosphere. In 1864, Pete’s Tavern opened its doors for business, and the American author O’Henry was one of its regulars – he even wrote about what was then known as Healy’s in his short story series. In the modern day, the pub attracts everyone from couples after a show to Irish immigrants to NYU students who aren’t afraid to speak their minds.
2. The Blue Bar – The Algonquin (Midtown)
During the 1920s, the historic Algonquin Hotel in Midtown Manhattan served as a meeting place among a group of prominent local authors, journalists, and actors, popularly known as the Algonquin Round Table. It was common for regulars to meet at the bar almost every day – some of the regulars included Dorothy Parker, George S. Kauffman, Robert Benchley, Heywood Broun, and Harold Ross of The New Yorker magazine. If you’re a literary historian who’s thirsty, the Blue Bar may be a perfect spot, but don’t overdo it. The cocktail prices (two drinks can cost $40) are not cheap.
3. White Horse Tavern (West Village)
A famous bar where Dylan Thomas drank just before he died, the White Horse Tavern has also hosted another Dylan (called Bob), as well as Anais Nin, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and Jack Kerouac. Kerouac was thrown out of the bar multiple times, and he wrote that once he found the urinals with the words ‘Go Home Kerouac’ written over them (some versions say ‘Jack Go Home’ or ‘Go, Home Jack,’ other versions are still written on the wall).
4. The Half King (Chelsea)
It might sound like a recipe for disaster when writers own and operate a bar and restaurant (especially when one wrote The Perfect Storm). However, The Half King does not fall into the category of easy irony. As a result of the combined efforts of Sebastian Junger, Nanette Burstein, and Scott Anderson, Half King has become a successful blend of a cozy pub and a candlelit writer’s retreat. There are weekly readings featuring some of the most important writers of our time.
5. Bemelmans Bar – Carlyle Hotel (Upper East Side)
The bar is named after Ludwig Bemelmans, author, and illustrator of the famous Madeline children’s books. A public display of Ludwig Bemelmans’ only art can be found at Bemelmans Bar, which displays his Central Park mural around the Art Deco cocktail lounge. See elephants on ice skating and rabbits enjoying a picnic in Central Park. Jazz trios perform every night at 9.30 pm (on Sundays and Mondays, they perform at 9 p.m.). Be sure to get there earlier to avoid paying a cover fee.
6. Sardi’s (Theater District)
It is well known for being the restaurant and bar that displays celebrity caricatures ( and sometimes celebrities themselves). There is also some interest in Sardi’s for those who enjoy reading. Aside from his involvement in the Algonquin Round Table, Heywood Broun also belonged to the Sardi’s Cheese Club, an association of journalists, critics, and agents with regular meetings at Sardi’s with notables such as Walter Winchell, Ward Morehouse, and Ring Lardner.
7. Kettle of Fish (West Village)
Kettle of Fish has moved around to several locations since it opened in 1950 above the legendary Gaslight Cafe. It picked up some interesting clientele (Dylan, Kerouac, and Hunter S. Thompson, among others) and inherited some history along the way. Today it’s a dive bar, sports bar, gay bar, and boho literary bar all in one cozy cellar – maybe it’s your bar too?
The legendary Gaslight Cafe, where Kettle of Fish opened in 1950, has moved several times since then. Along the way, it attracted some interesting clients (Dylan, Kerouac, and Hunter S. Thompson, among other folks) in addition to inheriting a bit of history. As of today, it is a dive bar, sports bar, gay bar, and boho literary bar mingling in one comfy space.
8. McSorley’s Old Ale House (Lower East Side)
Beer has been served at McSorley’s since 1854(ish), but women have only been permitted since 1970. Although still heavily y-chromosome-loaded (as well as tourist-loaded), there has been little change throughout successive waves of hipness, unhipness, and hipness in an unhip way.
You are guaranteed two mugs of ale regardless of what you order. A number of notable customers, including Joseph Mitchell, cummings, and Brendan Behan, in addition to the two presidents (Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt), also received two mugs of beer.
9. KGB Bar (East Village)
Located in the East Village, the edgy Algonquin roundtable, otherwise known as the KGB Bar, has been hosting regular literary readings for more than a decade. Whether or not there is an artist in residence, this dimly lit drinking den is a great place to spend a quiet evening. In the Red Room, one flight up, there is an air of sophistication and luxury, with antique upright pianos and tufted leather couches. In addition, it offers a variety of less literary entertainment, including jazz trios and burlesque performances.
10. Old Town Bar (Flatiron)
With a history dating back to 1892, Old Town Bar is true to its name, featuring original tile flooring adorned with vintage pressed tin ceilings. While not as well known as some of the other bars on this list, this bar has attracted some literary notables, which recently hosted the late Frank McCourt (you can find a signed copy of Angela’s Ashes on one of the booths). Those who remember Madonna might recall the scene where she smoked a cigarette during the Bad Girl video (1992), which was lit by an Old Town Bar barkeep (the scene also features Christopher Walken in his second-best performance and involves a pocket watch).
Would you like to know how to tip like a New Yorker? Read our blog to learn.